Principal Seymour Skinner and Gaming: Life Lessons in Problem Solving and Productivity

Seymour Skinner: Educator. Patriot. Badass.

For a long while I was finding it difficult to muster up the energy to get out of the rut I felt I was in. For me at least, there are two frames of mind which the eliminating of can contribute to overcoming this sort of paralysis, especially with new problems.

1) Switching From “I Can Do This” to “I Can Figure This Out” Mental Schemas: This is an odd one, mainly because most personal development blogs like to encourage faith in oneself through the phrasing of the former rather than the latter. However, in my experience, I’ve found that “I Can Do This” has an implication that the knowledge of how to solve the problem is already present somewhere in the recesses of the struggler’s mind. They just have to take advantage of it. But in this wide, wide world, we encounter many problems and situations which we could never have spontaneously prepared for. Whether taking on an entirely new set of duties/responsibilities in the work place, or dealing with the impact of circumstance, life is loaded with times when the solution, or even the material/knowledge-based means to it, is not located internally.

The only thing we possess in this situation is the amazing human ability to analyze relationships between objects, skills, and concepts. However, provided that a means exists in the external world to solve the problem (which, no matter how dire a situation gets, 99.9% of the time, there is), we can have faith that we HAVE the capacity to understand and figure it out.

One of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons is Bart The Murderer, where Bart is accused of getting Principal Skinner killed by the mob. But, at the last second, Skinner bursts in to tell the story of how he was actually trapped under a stack of newspapers for days, using MacGuyver-esque ingenuity (not to mention a complete disregard of scientific law) to escape. Though all of us might not be able to shrug off the laws of physics (those of you who can, shoot me an email. We have much to discuss), I think a lesson can be taken from this. The least-expected thing happens to Skinner, and yet, through keeping his mind sharp by turning his situation into a game (“I kept my mind sharp by seeing how many times I could dribble a basketball in a minute, and then trying to beat that record”), he is able to survey his surroundings and pick out elements which he can cobble together into an escape method. Nowhere in his mind existed a ready-made plan for being trapped under a mountain of newsprint, but his ability to create a game-space out of a daunting task, and keeping the faith that he could, in fact, FIGURE THIS OUT, led him to be able to create a means to escape. Had he not engaged his mind in this way, he very well might’ve ended up just a corpse buried under old copies of The New Yorker. Which brings me to my next point…

2) A Solved Problem Is Its Own Reward: A lot of the the time I find myself paralyzed when it comes to getting stuff done, especially when there is a significant knowledge-relation barrier between me and a solution. The incentive of “imagine how easy your life will be/the reduction in stress which will follow solving this problem or getting this thing done”, feel too far away to generate any amount of the kind of “right now” reward appeal which any evolutionary psychologist (or video game designer) will tell you tend to take the driver’s seat in terms of deciding which stuff gets done.

Then, following a brief spurt of creativity I had one day, I had triumphantly crossed off an item from my writing to-do list when I took a moment to reflect and realize that the reason I was happy following its completion wasn’t because of the potential career avenues it opened up by adding more written pieces to my resume, because I had eliminated an item of work, or EVEN because I love writing. I was happy because, damnit, working with a challenging problem and overcoming it feels good in and of itself. 

As Jane McGonigal writes in her awesome book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better, work IS play. When tested by checking-in on a mood scale during various daily intervals, researchers found that people were actually more depressed when doing things traditionally considered “relaxing” ( watching television, eating chocolate, etc than when they were engaged in work of any kind, whether creative, cooperative, discovery-based, or even just busywork. But here’s the rub: this result persisted, but only provided that their work had the appropriate characteristics which McGonigal states are necessary to turn it into a game: A goal, a feedback system, rules, and voluntary participation. These components provide any task with the potential to generate an intrinsic sense of reward through its accomplishment, so long as it is structured appropriately.

WELL worth your time to read, by the way.

It sounds as cliche coming out of my mouth as it does Principal Skinner’s, but when you have trouble getting yourself to start (or persist on a task), think not of the extrinsic rewards (which can actually REDUCE motivation), but the satisfaction that will come simply from the thrill of the process and the production of something tangible. If you’re having trouble finding the play in your work, try adding a couple unnecessary obstacles: a time limit, a structure, a couple extra rules or challenges… just something to make the task more interesting. Just as importantly, give yourself a quantifiable or qualitative method of receiving feedback. I personally use time-tracking via Toggl.com, and Done-Lists via idonethis.com, and found they really helped me.

Phew! Long post this week. But I hope this helps anyone having trouble digging themselves out of a rut, getting stuff done, or who are just plain ol’ bored with the way they’ve been operating lately. I know it did for me!

Cheers,

Vince

Up YOURS, procrastination!

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A Silver Lining: Academic Probation and It’s Benefits

In my last post, I talked about how I’ve been feeling stuck in a rut lately, without much means for getting out. Well, life sometimes has a way of kicking you in the face to force you out of that rut. I, in particular, seem to be someone who, like an academic version of Forrest Griffin, needs a few life-event haymakers to the face before I actually wake up, and remember that I’m in a fight for my life.

Case in point: last week I got served an academic probation notice. The last couple of semesters, I’d worked too often, and not prioritized my time well enough, so my academics suffered. So, instead of dropping my GPA with shitty grades, I just dropped the classes I did poorly in. Unfortunately, OSAP student loans frowns upon dropping to what is technically part-time studies when one is receiving “full-time” academic support.

I initially panicked at the prospect at having the “high-level student” part of my identity questioned for the first time. I was aware I’d be skirting the edge under the radar for a while now, but so long as no one noticed, I could just pretend it was no big deal. I could ignore that I can never focus when I want to, and that my academic capabilities are at the whim of the severe mood fluctuations I occasionally suffer. But now that I’ve been called on it, I scheduled an appointment to see a counselor at the Centre for Students With Disabilities to see if there actually IS something up with me mentally that keeps me from performing, and just to address the number of mental illness issues I’ve been dealing with for as long as I can remember. At the same time, I went into the on-campus clinic to get a physical done, to see if there was any physical abnormality that might be contributing.

I think it’s what I needed, honestly. The momentum of moving towards solving THAT problem rolled into me wanting to work out again. I switched my work out plan to a more traditional upper body/lower body/core/conditioning day split, largely thanks to being reminded from Jason Ferruggia’s site that “muscle builds while you rest, not while you exercise.” According to my spreadsheet, I’ve hit a significant plateau in my lifting gains in the past six months at least compared to those I made through Sept-Dec 2011. The same can be said for my losses in body fat percentage. So I’m going to give this a try until October, and see if it makes a difference. At the very least, it provides a much-needed dose of novelty into my routine to entice me into going regularly again (without it feeling like a chore).

I feel like I’m on the right track. Now I need to focus on remaining consistent.

I’ve gotten comfortable.

I don’t mean that in a positive way. The last week or two, I’ve been slowly slipping into a state of apathy. I’m working out less, writing less, sleeping more often, and indulging in junk food more often than I should. Not to mention not keeping track of my finances as closely, leading to overspending. Around the house, I’ve fallen backwards into a habit of “do a half-assed job and hope no one notices/says anything”, which disappoints me, because that seems to be my default setting when I don’t consciously focus on doing my best.

Back to the title of this entry, I think it’s because I’ve gotten used to the everyday beats of “get up, go to work, occasionally go to the gym”, and allowed myself to operate on autopilot. More and more I’m realizing that developing excellence (in whatever pursuit) is a skill, including any type of excellence of character (insofar as work ethic, diligence, present-mindedness, etc).

In the book Moonwalking With Einstein, the author Josh Foer talks about the “good enough” plateau in trying to continually improve his mnemonic skills in time for the World Memory Championships. There’s a point at which the practices which have gotten you to a certain point become inert, and there isn’t an established “next level” of practices laid out for you to ascend to in order to further improve. At that point, you must have the presence of mind, the desire, and the audacity to create that next level for yourself, and to pursue it with tenacity, despite nothing is forcing you to but yourself.

I feel like that’s the point which I’m at right now. The point at which being better than average isn’t good enough anymore. I’m unsatisfied with placating myself with the idea that I might be doing better than others. No more points for “just showing up.” I need to take that next step if I want to move from “good” to “great”, or at least continue my move up that scale. No. On second thought, no “at least.” “At least” is the type of apathy-building thinking that I’ve been allowing to pacifying my productivity.

Okay, so. What to do? Start right now. Let’s see:
New workouts, written down at least for the next week. Mix things up while keeping my presence at the gym and diligence/technique consistent. Remember to hit each main body section (chest, shoulders/back, core, lower body) in a different way each day. Two heavy-bag cardio days out of every 5-day spread. That leaves three days for weightlifting, which should be plenty. Leave early enough to allow cool down afterwards.

More meats and greens in my diet. I’ve been fine with fruit and nuts for a while now, but I’m seriously lacking in the veggie department. It wouldn’t shock me if this is partially why I’ve felt my energy levels and level of focus dropping as of late, despite vitamin supplementation. Rotate between meat-centric meals with poultry, fish, and red meat.

Keep consistent on intermittent fasts and homemade meals: 14 hours fasting, 10 hours eating, no starchy carbs until evening time meals. Move to 15 hour fast by the end of the week ending July 21st.

Cherry pick the online grocery flyers. Stick to sales as your main purchases, only move away from them for essentials (spinach, veggie stew ingredients, etc). Add up costs of items mentally WHILE placing them in the cart. This will help you be more aware of how much you’re spending and reduce the chance of over-spending.

Choose reading over video games. It fires up the brain more for writing/connecting new concepts, or just plain getting ready to do work. It’ll help get that initial inertia going that you need to sustain multiple hours worth of work on projects or school.

Write every day. If it’s on here, cool. If it’s a review on hubpages? Cool. If it’s part of a draft of an article you haven’t finished yet, or a scatterbrained plot of a screenplay you’re mentally piecing together? AWESOME. Just write SOMETHING. This is a skill you need to practice. Put in the hours, be there mentally, and you’ll see the results you want.

-Finally, stop being passive. All the above things are great, but changes won’t happen without you diverging from your routine and taking the extra step to get what you want. In anything and everything, it will get you that much closer. Another day of passivity means another day of the same old crap. Doggedly pursuing what you want and doing what it takes means you can wake up happy and go to bed proud. Which is a great goal in and of itself.

Phew! Okay, I’m feeling a bit better now with that stuff out there. Now, let’s make it real.

BAM! POW!! Changes! Writing! Screenplay Ideas! Progress!!! Exclamation Marks!!!!

Things seem to finally be progressing positively. I made the choice to drop one of my summer courses, so now the two remaining are just the ones which are required credits for my degree. I was sad to drop my Computers and Society course, as it taught me a lot and I loved learning about social media and societal issues, but it was simply more stress than it was worth. With the additional freed up time, I can work on my own personal writing and media projects, the directions of which I’m actually feeling pretty excited about.

The other day, I received my first email from someone outside of my immediate friend group wanting to contribute to The Rogues’ Gallery site. He’s a smart and ambitious guy (a business/marketing student, as well as aspiring stand-up comic), and a huge geek about video games, so we’ve started him off on a monthly video game column, moving to bi-weekly once we hit September if he seems like a good fit. I’m excited about this for two reasons: 1) It’s a fresh creative voice for the TRG site, and 2) Promoting through him is a great way to grow our audience in an additional city/social group.

Actually, there’s a third, more personal reason. While I love writing for the TRG site, it’s seemed like for the entirety of its lifespan, I’ve been covering everything that could be thrown under the umbrella of “geeky.” I’ve felt a responsibility to report on or comment on almost every big issue from TV, video games, movies, storytelling in general… you name it. As a result, I’ve felt a bit like ol’ Bilbo Baggins after years with the ring: too little butter spread over too much toast. I’m torn between where to put all my different blog ideas. Do I contribute to the TRG site in hopes someone will notice it on their internet travels (and out of a sense of duty to contribute), go to The Bookshelf e-zine with them in an attempt to be paid for it, or strike out on my own with my HubPages account? I’ve now begun alternating between the three. Reviews for everything but books, as well as opinion pieces, I switch back and forth between posting on The Rogues’ Gallery and The Rogue Reviewer (theroguereviewer.hubpages.com, for those interested). Once Bookshelf 2.0 launches, I’ll be continuing to put all my book reviews there, plus every 3rd opinion piece (they have one editor for over 300 contributors, so the cycle of return/feedback on submissions is pretty long).

I’m hoping that working my ass off during the summer will allow me enough financial leeway to significantly reduce my shifts in the fall during school, so I can build my writer’s resume (including learning how to MAKE one…) and online presence by writing/promoting regularly. Not to mention doing the podcasts, of which I’m toying with the idea of adding a new one to focus specifically on film. I just noticed that in conversations with one of my housemates and his girlfriend, I was tempted to start hitting record because of the hours’ worth of quality discussion we always get. I’m just now wondering what a good name might be, and how I can fit it into my schedule!

Speaking of schedules, another bit of excitement is that I’m meeting with one of my commission artist friends next week to discuss some art I want done for the site. So that’s kind of cool.

Finally, I came up with my first idea for a realizable screenplay the other night in a dream. It’s about a corporation who invents a pill which gives its users a superpower for 24 hours. I want to use the premise as a method of exploring the influence of corporate power on culture, the impact of the class disparity between rich and poor (“better” powers are more expensive, for instance), as well as the power/responsibility dynamic we all face as individuals. It also offers a lot of really fucking cool opportunities for toying with world-building, which I look forward to experimenting with. Needs a name, though…

ANYWAYS! I think that’s about all for now. I really need a signature sign-off…

Excelsior?

Update: July 2nd, 2012

So… that whole blogging more regularly thing…. yeah. *coughs* I was just about to touch finger to keyboard to make excuses for why I HAVEN’T been writing as much as I’d like, but then I realized that trying to justify my mistakes so they don’t seem so bad doesn’t do me any good. The only thing to do is pick up the pen (er, word processor?) again and have at it. That being said, a recap of what’s been up in my absence does seem appropriate.

I’ve had a lot of violent, emotional ups and downs lately. Between my three summer courses, my job (now pushing full-time hours), my writing on the side (not to mention gathering information, and getting as much practice as I can before attempting to go pseudo-professional in the fall), and keeping track of my gym, diet, and budgetary concern,  my mind has been sent into a tailspin of confusion. It seems like every time I feel like I have everything underneath my conscious spotlight, I turn around and discover there’s one, or two, or three items I’ve entirely forgotten about. I’ve begun to seriously contemplate whether I have ADD, after reading this article on the website for the Mental Illness Happy Hour, a great podcast I follow, which I previously gave mention to it in a blog I wrote on how the internet is impacting how people deal with mental illness. A lot of the things mentioned struck home pretty fierce.

See, I don’t HAVE a lack of attention all the time. I can super-laser focus when I’m watching a movie. That’s why I run a movie review/article blog in my spare time. Same with working out. Or drawing. Or reading a book I love. I just get MADDENINGLY frustrated because I can’t seem to control when I can focus and when I can’t. I’ve tried modifying my environment in every way I know how. I’ve tried working at different times of day, at different places. Tried keeping to-do lists, done lists, calendars… tried organizing my tasks from easiest to most difficult, from most difficult to easiest, or just starting with whatever I felt like doing. Tried getting more sleep, less sleep, sleeping during different hours to find the best times to sleep, eating more, eating less, eating better, eating at different times. The result has ALWAYS been (and don’t think the irony of this statement is lost on me): inconsistency. Things will work one day, and I’ll rejoice in thinking I’ve FINALLY found a solution to my problems. But then I’ll do it the next day and utterly crash and burn in terms of productivity.

I think that failure to find something that works and be able to be productive consistently is a big source of that questioning of my own abilities and own potential. I always ruled out the idea of having ADD because I was afraid I DIDN’T really have it, and was just fooling myself into thinking I did so I’d have a ready-made excuse to slack off. But now that I look up above to that paragraph and the number of things I’ve tried, I begin to think something may just be up with my brain that life hacks and better study/work strategies won’t fix. You’d think I’d be more forgiving of myself, being a psych student and all, but I feel like part of the reason I got into it was to try and explain my own weird thoughts and neuroses. In acknowledging I might need help of the pharmaceutical kind for a malfunctioning part of my brain, I’d be removing any kind of distance I put between myself and the case studies which fill so many of my textbooks.

I’m going to go see one of the University’s counselors. He’s a certified psychiatrist, and  hopefully if I explain my situation, he can set me up with some kind of therapy, some medication if he deems I need it, or at the very least, help me understand the Amazonian tangle of vines that make up the processes inside my skull.